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New Jersey Supreme Court Revives Parolee’s Challenge to Administratively Imposed Treatment Program

by Matt Clarke

On August 3, 2023, the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that a state prisoner’s parole could not be conditioned on his enrollment in a residential treatment program (RTP) when he is eligible for automatic release under the Earn Your Way Out (EYWO) Act, N.J.S.A. 30:4-123.55b to 55f. The Court said the statute authorizing RTP placement was limited to prisoners who would not otherwise be released.

The EYWO Act took effect after Leander Williams pleaded guilty to nonviolent third- and fourth-degree drug offenses. Despite a history of low-level drug offenses, he was eligible for release because he successfully participated in extensive rehabilitation while incarcerated.

About a month before his primary parole eligibility date, a Parole Board panel certified that Williams met the “criteria for administrative parole release” under the EYWO Act, entitling him to automatic administrative parole release. The panel set 21 general parole conditions and added a “special” condition that Williams participate in an RTP for a minimum of 180 days.

Williams appealed the special condition to the Parole Board. He argued that part of the Parole Act, N.J.S.A. 30:4-123.59, precluded the panel from requiring RTP as a condition of parole. But the Board upheld the special condition after determining that another part of the Parole Act, N.J.S.A. 30:4-123.59(b)(1)(a), authorized the panel to impose an RTP condition and that N.J.S.A. 30:4-123(d)—which limits imposition of RTP to prisoners who would otherwise not be released—was “inapplicable.”

On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the Parole Board’s determination. Williams then successfully sought certification from the state Supreme Court, where he was represented by Public Defender (PD) Joseph E. Krakora and Assistant PD John P. Flynn. The Court then framed the issue as one of statutory interpretation, which it said was necessary to resolve the apparent tension between the Parole Act subsections.

The part cited by the Parole Board, the Court noted, mandates certain parole conditions before stating that the board “may impose any other specific conditions of parole deemed reasonable in order to reduce the likelihood of recurrence of criminal delinquent behavior.” Those “special conditions may include, among other things,” a list of things, but RTP was not one of them.

On the other hand, the Court continued, subsection (d) allows the board to “parole an inmate to any residential facility funded in whole or in part by the State if the inmate would not otherwise be released pursuant to [N.J.S.A. 30:4-123.53] without such placement.” Unlike restrictions on internet use, animal ownership or victim contact listed in the other subsection, that makes RTP placement akin to imprisonment, the Court said, since residents are not free to leave. Therefore, subsection (d), though it gives the board a great deal of discretion in imposing conditions, cannot be stretched to cover RTP.

Further, subsection (d) makes RTP an alternative to parole denial for someone to whom it would otherwise not be granted. Williams would automatically be paroled, though. Moreover, having participated in residential and other rehabilitation programs, he was exactly the kind of person the EYWO Act intended to release, the Court said. To agree with the board would mean illogically subjecting releasees under the EYWO Act to greater requirements than those convicted of more serious crimes being released under the Parole Act. Thus the judgment of the Appellate Division was reversed and the matter remanded to the board. See: Williams v. N.J. State Parole Bd., 255 N.J. 36 (2023)  

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Related legal case

Williams v. N.J. State Parole Bd.